Jello Biafra, outspoken punk rock auteur and censorship activist, is coming to town with his new group, the Guantanamo School of Medicine. Biafra is the founder and frontman of the seminal punk group Dead Kennedys (DK). Since the DKs officially disbanded in the late 80s, Biafra has been involved in many projects including collaborations with the Melvins, Mojo Nixon and Canadian acts D.O.A. and NoMeansNo.
Biafra is also a sought-after spoken word artist, entertaining and educating audiences about his views on politics and his first-hand experience with government censorship at the hands of the much-hated Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC). In fact, Biafra was charged in the U.S. in 1986 under draconian legislation for “Distribution of Harmful Matter to Minors” — in this case for distributing copies of the Dead Kennedys LP Frankenchrist that contained a poster by Swiss artist H.R. Giger entitled “Penis Landscape,” which depicted rows of penises and vulvas.
Since the demise of DKs, Biafra has never had a consistent band to perform with, opting instead for one-off collaborations. Inspired by Iggy Pop’s 60th birthday performance, Biafra decided to form a band for his own 50th birthday celebration. That band became the Guantanamo School of Medicine.
“I think that people, when they hear that Biafra’s got a new band, they think that it might be some pieced together DKs tribute or something,” Guantanamo guitar player Ralph Spight told the Manitoban. “We really make an effort to take it way beyond anything like that. I think they’re gonna get a band that’s really pretty tight, and really takes it pretty far outside. You know, it’s a rock band for sure, but it’s got some really wacky elements to it.”
Spight is a veteran of “outside” rock music in his own right. During the 80s, he was a founding member of Victims Family, a band that toured the U.S. and Europe heavily into the 90s. Victims Family’s sound is hard to pin down, but certainly combines elements of punk and hardcore with jazz, funk and noise influences to create a heavy, psychedelic experience akin to the music of the Butthole Surfers, Primus and NoMeansNo. Spight was also involved in other bands, including Saturn’s Flea Collar and The Freak Accident. Victims Family performed recently in Europe and plans are in the works for a new release in 2011.
Victims Family opened for DKs in the mid-80s and later signed with Biafra’s record label, Alternative Tentacles, so Spight and Biafra’s relationship is one that goes back over 20 years.
Before Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine hit the studio in 2009, they spent serious time in rehearsals, then later in the studio itself, to achieve a sound all of their own.
“That was really important both to us and to Biafra,” Spight told the Manitoban. “I mean, Biafra really wanted to hear a lot of different sounds, and we sort of had to acquaint him with sort of our palette, what was available and what we were into doing. [We] really took it to a different place, rather than being conventional distorted guitars. We really layered a lot of effects and things like that, you know. That was by design.”
When asked if he still believed that music is still an effective way of challenging status quo ideas, Spight replied, “It’s interesting. I think that’s one aspect of punk rock and indie music that’s really been lost. It’s only just because people don’t go out to challenge their audiences anymore.”
Biafra and Spight, in their own ways, are certainly artists that are unafraid of challenging audiences.
“I really feel like there’s a rote, by-the-numbers kind of playbook that bands will use,” Spight continued. “Like we’re this kind of band, that kind of band. Nobody really wants to take responsibility for speaking up about anything.”
“Everything has become so commercialized, commodified and codified,” he elaborated. “Everyone knows what to expect. I think when you go beyond that, you begin to challenge your audience. I think that people just stopped doing it. I think it’s because punk rock is a career path now, rather than an idea.”
For fans of challenging, heavy music, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine’s performance at the Pyramid on Oct. 11 is not to be missed.